Don’t let Algae Blooms become our “New Normal”

A massive red tide and thousands of dead fish washing up across shorelines have cast light on a threat to the Bay that’s usually invisible: nutrient pollution. 

While nutrients sound like a good thing, excessive phosphorus and nitrogen – combined with warm sunny weather and stagnant water flows – provide ideal conditions for many types of algae to bloom, like the “red tide” that recently spread throughout the Bay.

In July, Baykeeper started getting pollution hotline reports of murky, reddish-brown waters in the East Bay. Agencies confirmed that the bloom was of the algae species Heterosigma akashiwo.

As our field investigators closely monitored, the red tide quickly spread to San Francisco, the Central Bay, and the South Bay. By August, our hotline was receiving reports of unprecedented numbers of dead fish, bat rays, sharks, and other creatures washing up on the Bay’s shores.  

Of all the factors that lead to harmful algal blooms, only one—nutrient pollution—is something we can control. The high levels of nutrients in the Bay primarily come from the region’s 40 wastewater plants, because our old technology means that even treated sewage discharges still contain a lot of nitrogen and phosphorus. In fact, San Francisco Bay has some of the highest nutrient levels of any estuary in the world.

Luckily, there are solutions, including upgrading wastewater plants to recycle water and capture nutrients before they enter the Bay. Our region’s wastewater plants can also filter discharges through wetlands where marshes can absorb – and benefit from – excess nutrients. But these solutions can be very expensive (we’re talking billions of dollars) and take years to fully implement.  And the closer we try to get to zero nutrient discharges, the more expensive it is. So we need to understand the science better to know what level of nutrients have to be removed to protect the Bay.

That’s why Baykeeper has been prioritizing collaborating with the Regional Water Board and local wastewater agencies on a “Nutrient Management Strategy.” But progress has been slow because of inadequate funding and a lack of agency focus on this critical issue. To prevent future toxic blooms in the Bay, the Regional Board must accelerate the pace of this critical research effort and commit to using the results as the basis for new water quality standards that provide meaningful protection for San Francisco Bay.

Sign our petition below urging the SF Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board to accelerate the Nutrient Management Strategy and to commit to taking faster action to reduce the nutrient discharges dumped into the Bay.